I don’t know about you, but I find that often the best-developed and most interesting character in a story is the villain. This seems odd in some ways; since the hero is the focus of the story and the POV through which we watch it unfold, shouldn’t he or she be the one that is the most compelling? Maybe there is some sort of voyeurism involved in watching that descent into evil, finding out what makes a person so bad, that makes it so fascinating.
As a writer, I’ve found that writing villains can be just as much fun. When I was writing My Name Is Michael Bishop, even though Michael is the character I felt closest to, I had more fun writing Lord Emmet’s chapters. Writing a compelling villain is hard, but it was also one of the more satisfying parts of the work. I didn’t want him to be a cookie-cutter evil sorcerer that cast a curse and tried to take over the world; I wanted him to be a living, breathing character who we could understand and in some ways relate to. I looked at what I found interesting about other villains that I’d read or seen and tried to mold them into an interesting villain of my own. Lord Emmet is the result (and wonderfully played by Charles Dance in my head).
So, as a way of organizing my thoughts about villains in general and what makes for an interesting one, I’ve compiled a list of what I feel are the elements of a good villain and why each is important. This isn’t intended to be a “How to Make a Good Villain” post, but I hope any writers out there find some use in it.
And away we go.
A Sense of Morality
The first element I find essential in a good villain is a sense of morality. Now, by morality, I don’t mean that he gives money to his evil church every week or helps evil little old ladies across the street, but that he has his own sense of morality that makes sense in his own mind. Sure, he may commit horrible atrocities, but he’s doing it for a good reason. Every act, no matter how vile, was absolutely necessary in the greater scheme of things. I mean, of course those kittens had to be sacrificed. It was necessary in order to summon the fluffy spirit of Mr. Sprinkles, who will make the world his scratching post and the hero’s army into his litter b…
…ahem. To the villain, whether anyone agrees with him or not is irrelevant. He believes that in the end, the world will recognize his greatness. He is the hero of his own story, and being the hero, if only to himself, he must…
Remain Active, Even Behind the Scenes
Even when he is working behind the scenes, a great villain should always be proactive about reaching his goals. Whether the endgame is to rule the world, rob a bank, or kidnap a princess, he needs to constantly work toward achieving that goal. After all, a villain who just lounges about all day watching Food Network and snacking on kale chips isn’t likely to spread a whole lot of evil, and will certainly never bend the world to his will.
Hmmm. Must be why I never got my supervillain membership card. Oh well. There’s always Iron Chef. Hey, look! Kale chips!
The Man in the Mirror
I read in a craft book somewhere along the way that the villain should be a sort of twisted reflection of the hero. This makes a lot of sense to me, and is a common thread in some of my favorite villains. Take Voldemort from the Harry Potter series for example. Both he and Harry were orphans who grew up in unhappy homes, only to find that Hogwarts was where they really belonged. Both were powerful wizards, and even their wands are almost mirror images of each other. You really see this unfold as you read The Chamber of Secrets.
I think this sort of symmetry brings a whole new level of tension to the story. Sure, the hero is the good guy and the villain is the bad guy, but what if circumstances had been different? Could a decision somewhere along the way have reversed their positions? In defeating the villain, is the hero likely to become just as bad in the end? Maybe the villain is a reflection of some flaw inherent in the hero. It gives real depth to the struggle between the two and can make for some very interesting interactions.
A Touch of Sympathy
I don’t think any truly interesting character is all good or all evil. It’s those shades of gray that really flesh out a character and keep them from becoming a two-dimensional caricature of good or evil. Writers are often told that it’s the flaws in their heroes that brings them to life and makes them interesting. I think the opposite is true when it comes to villains. It’s those little things that make a villain more than a homicidal monster that make them jump off the page or out of the screen.
Sure, the villain may, in fact, be a homicidal monster, but he has an old cat that he rescued as a kitten and raised ever since, or maybe he saves the life of a street urchin who would otherwise be below notice. The villain may look at these flashes of sympathy as weaknesses, but I think those are what make them human and relatable. Those are the moments that make them real.
Unlimited Minutes, I Mean Power!
An epic villain should be powerful. This can be physical strength, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be that your villain is a powerful wizard, or that he has an armada of battleships behind him. Maybe he’s an evil genius that sees the rest of us as little more than ants beneath his mental might. You know, that reminds me of a teacher I had way back in…
Tension builds quickly when the hero faces such overwhelming odds. We flip page after page, wanting to know what happens next, how the hero acts and reacts. How can he possibly stand up to this sort of power? Maybe we’ll find out on the next page…or the next…or the next. I don’t think just being capable of defeating the hero is enough. The villain should be so much more powerful than the hero that victory seems impossible. That makes that victory, when it comes, so much sweeter.
One of my favorite villains was the Operative from the movie Serenity. He was absolute in his belief that hunting down the Firefly crew and capturing River was the right thing to do. He had access to advanced technology and was unmatched in combat. Plus he’s flying around in space and using a sword. How cool is that?
There have been countless great villains in books, movies, and TV. Again, one of my favorites is the Operative from the movie Serenity. What are some of your favorite villains? Do you prefer a villain who shares a past with the hero, or maybe one who is “fated” to meet the hero in an epic battle? An evil genius or a thug who attacks with brute force? What do you think makes a great villain? Let’s discuss it in the comments below.